lauren boilini and paintings

Lauren Boilini: As Above, So Below

by Lisa Kinoshita

Art by Lauren Boilini at Foss Waterway Seaport, June 9-July 30, 2019

two swimmers
Ocean Fest director Rosemary Ponnekanti, left, and Lauren Boilini ready for a dip at Alki Beach.

On a sunny morning in early May, artist Lauren Boilini is conducting research for her next project, a series of monumental paintings of whales commissioned by Ocean Fest, an organization celebrating World Oceans Day, June 9, at Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma. An avid open-water swimmer, she wears a bikini sans wetsuit, and regards with relish the glassy waters off Alki Beach, where she swims all year round. Bystanders watch intently as she, Ocean Fest Director Rosemary Ponnekanti, and a surprisingly large group of perhaps 20 other regulars, wade into the chilly surf. Nothing like a plunge in 50-degree waters to get the creative juices churning.

“I think it was around 51 degrees yesterday, which feels really warm after a long winter,” she says. “Anything above 50 is much more bearable than below 50.” Okaaay…

Boilini art studio
Boilini’s art studio in Seattle. She pre-soaks her massive panels of watercolor paper before painting.

I visit Boilini’s studio in South Seattle where she is working on her commission for Ocean Fest: “As Above, So Below”, a series of eight 95” high x 51” panels of whales. Six monochromatic, blue-on-white paintings are already hanging on the walls, and the effect is immersive, like swimming in clear aquamarine depths over white sand, or peering into a gigantic aquarium. Painted in blue ink on watercolor paper, the images of whales are monumental yet serene, capturing the majesty of the world’s largest sea mammals inside a transparent shroud of color. Boilini’s subject is not the orcas native to Puget Sound, but baleen whales, gentle filter-feeding giants of the sea.

boilini art studies
Many studies and sketches line the walls and tables. “I want to make sure of how the watercolors behave before I start on the big panels,” says Boilini.

After creating several small concept studies, Boilini set to work on the full-size paintings. Each panel is completed in one sitting of about three hours; while the heavy paper is wet, she quickly manipulates the ink with her brush. This is her tribute to the world’s oceans and its inhabitants, under urgent threat from pollution, over-fishing, coastal development and global warming. Ocean Fest, a free, one-day festival on Tacoma’s waterfront, will stage visual and performing arts, science activities, education and play, to draw attention to the plight of the earth’s oceans.

During ritual swims in Puget Sound, “We’ve seen whales from the beach, which is always incredible. Seals are very curious and often follow closely, sometimes for long distances. I’ve had them put their noses on my feet before. I especially love seeing sea pens – the bright orange of their ‘quill’ is dramatic when you’re swimming along.” Listening to her talk, the appeal of swimming in bone-chilling waters becomes more apparent. However, the whale series also ties into Boilini’s ongoing research into aggressive group behavior, including “manifestations of feeding frenzies.”

Ponnekanti, left, and Boilini slowly immerse themselves to acclimate to the 52-degree water.

In Puget Sound, “The water is remarkably clear, especially in winter, so I’ve been able to experience all kinds of wildlife in their natural habitat.” Other wild-water experiences led the artist “to an investigation into bait balls and lunge feeding by [non-native] rorquals – said to be the largest bio-mechanical event on Earth. I was interested in the dynamic scale relationship between baleen whales and their tiny prey, and the act of picking up speed and opening your mouth to swallow everything in sight. I’m fascinated by the thought that a bait ball is a defensive maneuver that often backfires by attracting predators, resulting in a feeding frenzy.”

Boilini plans to keep plumbing the depths for information and inspiration: “Something about feeling vulnerable and small in a vast ocean as an open water swimmer, makes me think and dream big.” ~Lisa Kinoshita

Lauren Boilini will give an artist talk at Ocean Fest on Sunday, June 9, at 12:45pm. View her work, and enjoy a full day of free fun from 10am-5pm at Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock St., on Tacoma’s waterfront. The Foss is a world-class maritime and art museum located about one mile from the Museum of Glass on Dock St. See all artists here.

About Lauren Boilini:
Lauren Boilini was born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana. She received her B.F.A. in Painting and Art History at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2006. In 2008 she completed her M.F.A. at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). She has served as an artist-in-residence at Canserrat in Spain, Jentel Arts in Wyoming, Soaring Gardens in Pennsylvania, the Studios of Key West, the Creative Alliance and School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, and as a Consortium Resident at the Studio Art Centers International (SACI) in Florence. She was invited as an artist-in-residence at the Burren College of Art in Ireland and received a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in 2012. She has shown her work all over the East Coast and Washington and has served as faculty at a number of schools in the Baltimore/DC area and is now happy to call Seattle home, where she currently divides her time teaching at Evergreen State College, Cornish College of the Arts and Pacific Lutheran University. She has completed public projects for the Maryland Department of Public Health, Auburn Arts Commission, Shunpike Storefront Seattle, Spaceworks Tacoma, and the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. This summer she is looking forward to a residency at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA.

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